F 756 The recovery and historical positioning of the original Pitt Rivers collection

The first Leverhulme Trust funded project ran from 1995 to 1998. The primary investigator was Howard Morphy, then curator-lecturer at the Pitt Rivers Museum (later replaced by Chris Gosden) and the researcher was Alison Petch. The following extract is from the final report made to the Leverhulme Trust about the project:

The project, funded for a three year period by the Leverhulme Trust, was set up in order that research could be carried out into the objects that formed the founding collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum, and so that a comprehensive analytical catalogue of the objects could be prepared.

The researcher was appointed from January 1995 and has now been working for over three years. During that time she has undertaken detailed research of the existing publication about Pitt Rivers, his archaeological field experience and his collections, and his own publications. Each of the circa 20,000 objects that might form part of the founding collection of the Museum has had a detailed computer entry prepared for it based on several forms of primary sources available in the Museum and contextualising information provided by the Leverhulme researcher. More recent information about objects has been added if available, together with old and current display label information and location details. The advantage of a computerised catalogue is that it is easy to search and compare records, it is also easy to cross-relate information. To give an idea of the size and detail of the catalogue, the total catalogue file is now (March 1998) over 50 megabytes, and if printed out would require well over 14, 000 sheets of A4 paper.

Details about the collection

The overall collection transferred to Oxford was composed of both archaeological and ethnographic objects. Most had previously been on display at the Bethnal Green Museum, and later at the South Kensington Museum. Previous estimates of the overall size of the founding collection have varied from 12000 to 15000 objects. As a result of the research project into the collection it can now be confirmed that 17,300 objects were definitely received at Oxford and it is possible that a further 7,000 items were donated by Pitt Rivers at the same time. It is not possible to accurately count the number of objects because of the idiosyncrasies of the collection and the way in which the original documentation was prepared.

The 7,000 objects are, for the most part, made up of entries from primary sources, other than the accession books, for which matches cannot be made to those objects listed in the accession books. Today all collections are thoroughly described and counted as they are accessioned by the Museum and each object is physically and indelibly numbered with its unique accession number. The Pitt Rivers collection, however, as the founding collection of the Museum, was accessioned before such procedures were in place. This has meant that the whole accessioning process has had to be done retrospectively. In addition, although documentation for each of the objects did accompany them from London it is no longer possible, in all cases, to satisfactorily match documentation to object. As has also been explained elsewhere, each object may have up to 6 primary sources of documentation and in many instances these items of documentation do not marry happily together, thus documentation may not match documentation. Further confusion may have occurred because it took so long to unpack and re display the objects after they had been received at Oxford (around 10 years as a minimum).

The first attempt to successfully collate information about the collection took place in the 1920s when the three accession books were written by E.S. Thomas. However this was already 40 years after the original donation and some errors definitely occurred. Since that date quite a few objects have been found that are definitely part of the collection but not listed in the three accession books. Details about these objects have been added in. The figures given above can therefore be interpreted to mean that 17,300 objects are listed in the three accession books or have been found unlisted between the 1920s and 1998. It seems likely, now that all the primary sources of information have been collated for the first time, that a further 7,000 objects might be stored in the Museum awaiting retrieval and retrospective listing. Of the 17,300 accessioned items, 8,073 are ethnographic objects and 10,069 are archaeological (there is a slight overlap between the two numbers because of some necessary double-counting). Of the 7,000 further objects thought to have come to Oxford, over three quarters are ethnographic.

By far the largest proportion of the accessioned objects are from Europe. The breakdown of objects between continents is as follows: Europe 9,930; Africa 1,624; Americas (North, Middle and South) 1,460; Asia 2,480 (including SE Asia); Oceania (including Australia) 1,237. Of the objects from Europe, which form such a large percentage of the total, most, as one might expect, are archaeological but there are also significant numbers of ethnographic items. The accessioned items Pitt Rivers himself 'collected' (that is collected on trips abroad or dug up) number around 5,000 (or between a quarter and a third of the entire accessioned collection). Of these, the vast majority come from Europe.

The researcher has already given a number of talks and lectures on the founding Pitt Rivers collection based upon the research she has carried out. She has twice given a lecture to the M.St students on Pitt Rivers and also given talks to the Friends of the Pitt Rivers Museum and to the Education Guides.She has also given a talk to a party of students from the University of Leicester Dept of Further Educations, to the Associates of the Smithsonian and to members of the general public as part of the Heritage Day celebrations at the Museum in 1997. She has given a lecture on computerising collections as part of the Working Seminar series at the Museum in January 1998.

Future plans April - September 1998

During the remaining 5 months of the project the researcher will complete any outstanding publications arising from the project and prepare information for the activities arising from the research [see next section]. The Leverhulme Trust has already been informed about the multi media teaching project, coordinated by the University of Kent, for which the Museum part is about aspects of the Pitt Rivers research. The Museum is hoping to host a symposium and exhibition about the founding collection in 1999 and 2000. These will both be based upon the Leverhulme research project.

The Museum hopes to organise a symposium with many guest speakers to be held in 1999. The usual presentation on the issues of collecting is to consider the conduct of collectors in the field, but this symposium will concentrate on the world of institutions and auction houses, and secondary collectors; the relationships between all these types of people and museums and, of course, field collectors. Thus the main thrust of the symposium would be the process of the construction of collections rather than collecting in particular. The aim would be to make the scientific process of collection more closely defined so that collecting or amassing collections and field collecting can be seen separately. The collection would be seen as a construct of social and historic processes. The symposium will either be restricted to those people (ie field collectors or other secondary collectors, dealers etc) and institutions represented either in the PRM Pitt Rivers collection or at Farnham and privately as well (that is, make the focus the entire collection).

The Museum also plans to hold an exhibition starting in the autumn of 2000, which is the centenary of Pitt Rivers’s death. The museum will hope to discuss how objects have been and are documented in the museum with a general education aim—to show members of the public how museum documentation works and its importance (and to show how objects are worthless without documentation); to show how objects and collections are researched; to show the different ways in which objects have been documented during the past—with particular reference to Pitt Rivers’s objects; to bring in aspects of symposium areas of interest, for example, field collection, other types of collection, the importance and interest of the history of objects prior to them being donated to the Museum. Representatives of the Leverhulme Trust will be invited to the opening ceremony for the exhibition. Both the symposium and the exhibition will draw heavily on the research resources offered by the project.

Finally, the Museum has become involved with a HEFCE-funded project (coordinated by the University of Kent at Canterbury) to review the use of multi-media techniques and resources in the teaching of anthropology. The Museum has decided to concentrate on an aspect of the Pitt Rivers research project for its part of the project. The researcher prepared the information which has then been visually enhanced for use in CD-roms (in the first instance during the trial period) and later possible over the web. The information might be used in-house, with some modification, for museum visitors.

The Museum’s part of the project has been centred around the 38 shields displayed on Screen 2 at Bethnal Green. These were described in the 1874 catalogue. The research project allowed these to be matched to the objects in the Pitt Rivers Museum collection. Starting with the Screen 2 display the project will provide more detailed information about each object, details about Pitt Rivers himself and his overall collection, the world in which they were collected and displayed originally, examine the different ways in which such objects can be displayed and discuss collection and exhibition of museum objects. Finally specific issues arising from the type of object will be considered—the history of weapons collections, iconography of shields etc.

During [the project] one of the Project Directors (Howard Morphy) has obtained a Australian Research Council Senior Fellowship and is now based in ANU in Canberra but he has continued to monitor this project. The other project director (Schuyler Jones ) has now retired but still maintains an interest in the project. The Acting Director of the Museum, Dr Chris Gosden has agreed to take an interest in the project.

Chris Gosden, April 1998.

Note: Sadly, the exhibition never happened, but the rest is available via the web as are the publications listed in the full version of this report

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